Recorded: 08 Mar 2006
The thing about Sydney Brenner is that he himself could be the story, simply because he loves to talk about other scientists. And just listen to him give his renditions of everything. For instance, he sent in a grant maybe eight years ago that wasn’t well treated by the NIH. So he happened to be writing a column for a scientific journal, and he wrote one called Moron Peer Review. Actually it was a fabulous article, because every one of us could relate to exactly what he was saying. And, ….but he’s wonderful. A lot of great stories.
My favorite story about him is that he really uses many other people as a foil. There was a meeting honoring the thirtieth anniversary at the time of the Journal of Molecular Biology.. I was an editor at the journal for twenty years until just a couple years ago. We all went to Cambridge, we had a business meeting and a dinner.
There was a public mini-meeting, where all the people in Cambridge were invited, this is Cambridge, England, and a number of people gave talks. And Max Perutz, who Sydney loved to use as a foil. Now Max Perutz, who unfortunately passed away a few years ago, was not only one of the fathers of protein chemistry, and one of the great protein chemists in history who continued actively doing research up through his last years. But he was also very kind and a gentle personality, at least.
But Sydney used him as a foil. He gave a lecture once about 10 years ago on their seminal work on the triple nature of the genetic code, which is one of the great papers of molecular biology history, the Crick-Brenner triple nature of the genetic code. He talks with this fabulous slightly South African accent, which I certainly won’t try to imitate here. So Sydney, of course… But he said, “And then we sent it out to different scientists, they all sent it back saying, like Frank Stahl, saying ‘We don’t understand it, it’s too complicated.’ So we rewrote it, and then we gave it to Max” – now don’t forget he’s talking about one of the most brilliant protein chemists in history –“Because if Max could understand it, then anyone could.”
For instance, he would ask these basic questions like, “What’s a plaque”, or “What’s a phage?” It’s typical Sydney because if you can use the greatest protein chemist as your straight man or as your foil, you’re really pretty good.
So at this meeting at Cambridge Max Perutz actually gave a paper. Even though he was in his 80s, it was really very nice. So, Sydney gets up from the front row when the paper’s done. And again, of course as a prank and he says, “Max, the secretary is ty…” Oh, and excuse me, Perutz had told everybody “We’ve just submitted to the Journal of Molecular Biology. So Sydney jumps up and says, “Max! The secretary is typing the rejection letter as we speak!” Of course it was a prank, but that captures the impishness of Sydney.
I did have a chance once to turn the tables on him. As it turns out I have a quasi-namesake in the field, Jeffrey F. Miller who is actually now chair of my department, so I’d better say nice things about him. He’s really terrific, and he works in pathogenic bacteria. Before he came to UCLA, but while I was at UCLS, so he’s Jeffrey Miller and I’m Jeffrey Miller, we have different middle initials…he published a paper on using the lacI gene on a shuttle vector to go into human cells and to even monitor mutagenesis or something.
Both the lacI gene which I worked on for years, and mutagenesis, those are my main fortes. Sydney saw the paper, he sees lacI, and mutagenesis, Jeffrey Miller, and he assumed that I did the paper. He called me up and said, “It’s a terrific piece of work.” For a second, I wanted to say, “Thanks, Sydney, coming from you, that’s a terrific compliment.” But I just couldn’t do it, I had to let on it was the other Jeffrey Miller.
But Sydney, I could listen to him talk all the time, he has boundless energy. I know he’s been ill recently. We are hoping that he has an extended period of good health. He’s really a brilliant scientist, and he’s done wonderful things. And he loves good wine and I like wine. I’ve shared many a bottle and a meal with him. He’s really funny. You just, I just love him, he’s great.
Jeffrey H. Miller, Ph.D., is the Distinguished Professor of the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Molecular Genetics at the University of California, Los Angeles. After receiving his undergraduate degree in biology from the University of Rochester, he did graduate work in biochemistry and molecular biology at Harvard in the department that included Jim Watson and Walter Gilbert, doing his thesis work under Jonathan Beckwith at Harvard Medical School. His postdoctoral work was pursued under Benno Müller-Hill at the Institute for Genetics of the University of Cologne in Germany, followed by 11 years on the faculty at the University of Geneva's Department of Molecular Biology, which was then headed by Alfred Tissières. In 1983 he joined the faculty at UCLA, where his scientific focus has been large-scale DNA sequencing and genomic analysis, the enzymology of DNA repair, protein structure, and the role of DNA repair enzymes in human cancer. He received the 2007 Career Award for Research from the Environmental Mutagen Society.
Miller has been a frequent participant at Cold Spring Harbor Symposia, a course lecturer at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and a co-organizer of two meetings at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory's Banbury Center. He has been a consultant and principal in various biotechnology companies since the 1980s. In 1994 he co-founded Diversa Corporation, which has merged to become Verenium, a publicly owned biofuel company. He is the author of several books and laboratory manuals published by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, including "Experiments in Molecular Genetics" (1972), "A Short Course in Bacterial Genetics" (1992), and "Discovering Molecular Genetics" (1996).